How Kilo Kish Humanizes High Art

At her most cerebral, Kilo Kish brings us to the core of ourselves.
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“I’m trying to get to a place where all of my ideas get to be realized the way that I see them in my head. Right now, that’s at, about a 6.6, sevenish… I don’t even feel like I’m close to where I could go.” —Kilo Kish to The A.V. Club in 2017.

Kilo Kish is in the business of visualization, as well as visual art, and performance art, and pop art, and every art word under the aesthetics umbrella. Yes, Kilo Kish is in the art business, but she’s very humble about it. In 2017, she gave herself a Pitchfork-scale rating of 7.8, because her ability to execute, according to her, was only a 6.6. Where gentle self-deprecation is the highest form of coping and communion, we all laughed along with Kilo as she admitted she had a long road of work ahead of her. In one bout of humor, she reached for high-minded creative concepts and brought them down to eye level for a moment of camaraderie.

The interview was sweet and endearing and encompassed the whole of Kilo Kish’s career: humanizing high art.

Kish’s uncanny ability to dissolve the line between the highbrow performance and the average-feeling person should come as a shock to no one. After all, she did attend two separate New York City art schools. Her music is thusly freewheeling in the emotionally aware sense. She is not classically experimental, where experimenting implies meandering with only flits of intent until the full picture reveals itself. Rather, Kilo Kish is experimental in that she appears to shock herself and her listener into feeling and expressing themselves. She plays with her emotions to get us to better understand our own.

In that way, the use of high art is something of a bait-and-switch. Since her 2013 mixtape K+, Kilo has used avant-garde expression as a ticking distancing technique, erecting walls to be destroyed. On this mixtape, and always at her most cerebral, Kilo brings us to the core of a song, and to the core of our collective selves, by sneaking simple and leveling truths into her music.

Take “Scones,” a track featuring Donald Glover as Manhattan’s worst boyfriend. Sonically, the song is busy to the point of inaccessible, making it a prime high art contender. “Scones” begins with a phone argument between Kish and Glover, and as the song continues on, so does the call. The layering is dizzying and distracting, and a perfect simulation of how engrossed in static we become when trying to move along with our lives and fight with our partners.

The fight in “Scones,” too, is trite and obvious, asserting the point that so many our universals are petty, but there’s nothing wrong with that. “Scones” may feature only two vocalists, but we have all been privy to a “Scones” scene, either as a participant or a witness. While the song itself becomes fuzzy and disconnected, as listeners, we feel ever-closer to Kilo. At her most thought-provoking and outlandish, Kilo Kish is simultaneously at her most relatable, with her art at its most accessible.

In 2016, Kilo Kish upped the ante, releasing her debut album Reflections in Real Time: a stitching of voice memos and general anxieties. “I wanted to make an album that sells myself,” she told Saint Heron in 2016. “I tried really hard to go through my notebook and came up with different concepts in the beginning. Then, I just filled in the concepts with different notes, voice notes and things from my cell phone. From there I saw all that I had, which is funny to look at because it’s actually what I think about.”

Now, Reflections in Real Time is not less of an album and more of a traversal—it is more than an album and more than a journey. There is no reason to weigh the record amongst its parts because each piece and the album itself constitutes its own orbit. Ornamented in fringe-gray tones and the sonic manifestation of mental clutter, the album is a collection of Kilo Kish sketches—of human sketches—and beneath the challenge of the music, we hear Kilo attempt cognitive behavioral therapy live. While Kilo stays off socials, the album plays familiar to us in 2018 as it partly mimics the way we see other artists break on social media. Ahead of its time, Reflections gets the high art stamp, as well.

Which brings us to the centerpiece of the album, “Existential Crisis Hour!,” also co-starring Donald Glover. Instead of a bickering couple, Kish and Glover take on the voices inside of our collective heads, embodying every general anxiety there ever was in a series of terrifying, passing questions. The effect is layered and high-minded, and exactly true to the flashes of existential dread that color pockets of everyone’s free time.

If you say I'm in control / And my actions serve to give my life a meaning, / Does it have a meaning if I choose an action?” Kish asks Glover over a doting, fairy-tale-montage-type beat. The dissonance between the content and the production is a gentle mockery, a tease of how fine we claim to be. To that point, on “Existential Crisis Hour!,” Glover goes from being a miserable boyfriend to acting as a stonewall to hope. Yet, it is when Kish asks, “No matter how hard I press my face into yours / A space remains / So am I alone?” and Glover replies, “Yep / Nope / God, no” that we realize they are playing the same character, and the illusion of the track is consequently broken. At its most layered, the track rings most true: we are constantly warring with ourselves in private, because conflict may well be the human condition.

Of course, Kilo Kish is also a visual artist, and thus the video for “Existential Crisis Hour!” is equally colorful and piercing, self-deprecating and a clear blueprint for much of the visual work done by Tierra Whack. Kilo is served morning coffee before an entire breakfast is served on her head: eggs cracking, cereal throwing, milk dumping, and she merely sighs through it all. Turning your head into a breakfast bowl is performance art at its finest, but as we’ve come to understand, Kilo Kish’s points are never shrouded. We all know what the cereal means, and what getting a carton of milk dumped on our heads feels like.

Then we have the hilarious and cacophonous “Collected Views from Dinner,” which is essentially dinner theater. At once, this is one of the most disengaged and myopic tracks on the album, where Kilo Kish’s vocals and emotions cede the floor to banal restaurant chatter. Her anxiety over an inability to connect with people, ostensibly the “art crowd,” seeps in through the wings of the cut. Kilo finds the whole scene disingenuous, affirming that she only plays the art game to upend the art game. Her critiques found on the track amount to a lack of human touch, making her own humanity unique and novel in the high art world. Consider “Collected Views from Dinner” the resounding proof for all of Kilo Kish’s creative moves.

Perhaps most engaging is how the critiques themselves have a human element. With “The Fears of a Dilettante” coming four tracks after “Collected Views from Dinner,” we find Kilo struggling with imposter syndrome, worried that she is as fraudulent as the very systems she is trying to work around. Eleven tracks into the record, “The Fears of a Dilettante” is another relatable reprieve, as imposter syndrome is peak creative human condition. Kilo Kish humanizes herself and whole of the album, emphasizing that she is not beyond reproach, just sensitive in her own way.

All of which brings us to her 2018 return EP, Mothe, due out September 7. “I do try to find a way to make conceptual art projects palatable,” she told Paper Mag last week. “Some stuff is only going to work in the gallery, and some stuff is going to translate really beautifully live, and some things look cool in a video, and sometimes I just want to make songs and not have it be this art thing.” “This art thing” reads as the unfeeling world of high art that she has spent the past half-decade of her career revitalizing, effectively removing barriers to high art entry.

Along with the interview, Kilo Kish teased her upcoming EP with a furry-dream-pop-acid-trip of a video for her lead single, “Elegance.” Again, the juxtaposition is impressive and direct: we’re challenging what it means to be elegant where that was once a systematically unattainable concept for many women, many Black women especially. The music and the writing are otherworldly; consider Kilo in another, electronica-inspired dimension as she traipses about Japan. From the bar to karaoke, Kilo personifies euphoria and escape, but not even she is immune to the heady and grounding.

Much like Glover denies her hope on “Existential Crisis Hour!,” by the end of the “Elegance” video, the neon sheen has been lifted and Kilo Kish is left alone in the middle of a crosswalk as morning arrives. Unphased, she hails a cab and the illusion ends—at the end of the trip, Kilo is alone like the rest of us. Even in the space of a surrealist fever dream, Kilo Kish cannot escape her humanity, and thus her art, too, can never be without the human element.

Of course, the humanization of high art is a form of resistance, too, when we consider the racist ideologies that delineate what is traditionally regarded as high art and what is traditionally regarded as popular art. Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer, for instance, is another display of resistance to the notion that hip-hop is simply lowbrow. The only expressions truly lowbrow are the unfeeling ones, the indeliberate and imprecise ones that tout their imprecision as a feature of the art as if we cannot already sense the lack of soul.

Everything Kilo Kish does has soul. What she achieves with the sphere of her music is the ultimate bridging between high art, the avant-garde, and the masses. Her grand artistic statement is not simply that all art is high art, but that humanity is the core of all art, which then becomes high art. Kilo Kish’s music is the enemy of false distinction and the greatest ally of accessibility. She is the face of feeling and validity, and the importance of giving into your Japan-based acid dreams whenever you can.

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